Friday, October 13, 2017

LeCarré Looks Back

John LeCarré has been a major figure in my literary landscape since 1964, when I read his sensational best-seller, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.  That was in fact his third book, but his first big success, and it established him as a major Cold War novelist.  I discovered later that Spy (as I shall call it) had used an interesting literary device.  It was in fact a kind of sequel to an earlier, less successful novel, Call For the Dead, which had introduced the character of British spy George Smiley, and the German Hans-Dieter Mundt, who had worked for a while in Britain, committed several murders, and returned to Germany to become (by the time of Spy) the head of East German intelligence.  It turned out theta LeCarré, real name David Cornwall, had been a British spy himself, but he left the Secret Service in the 1960s.   After writing three stand-alone books in the next ten years, LeCarré revived Smiley (who had been a minor character in Spy) in his 1974 masterpiece, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, dealing with the hunt for a Soviet mole at the highest levels of British intelligence.  Tinker, Tailor spawned two sequels completing the story of Smiley's duel with Karla, his Soviet counterpart.  During the 1980s he wrote The Little Drummer Girl, about Israelis and Palestinians; A Perfect Spy, in which he re-created his father, a con man, as the father of another treacherous British spy; and The Russia House, based on a true case of corrupted intelligence during the Reagan years--just as Tinker Tailor  was based on the case of the real defector Kim Philby.  Then the Cold War came to an end, and LeCarré went in another direction.

I do not mean to put off my faithful readers for whom all this may be new, but if you have never read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, I must urge you to stop reading now, go to your local library (or to, and get it.  It is one of the most brilliant and provocative thrillers ever written, complete with one of the most shocking denouements, and I cannot do what I want to do today without giving away the key to the plot.  If cold war thrillers will never be your style, I suppose you may as well go ahead; but I feel both sad and deeply envious for anyone who still has this book ahead of him or her. I feel the same way about Tinker, Tailor, although it is a somewhat longer and more difficult read.  The reason for all this is that LeCarré has now published a new sequel to Spy, A Legacy of Spies, which I want to discuss--more as a literary critic than an historian, although this post will have historical points.  And I can't do it justice without giving away a great deal about Spy.

The title character in Spy was Alec Leamas, a hard-drinking British agent, who at the beginning of the book watches his last agent inside East Germany shot as he tries to cross the relatively new Berlin Wall into West Berlin.  The killing is the handiwork of Hans Dieter Mundt, who years earlier, serving his country in London, had murdered an agent and her husband--and nearly murdered George Smiley--but somehow managed to escape before being apprehended.  Leamas now returns to London, and the mysterious Control--the head of the Service until his death years later, just before the main action of Tinker, Tailor begins--suggests to him that they "take another crack at Mundt."  Leamas agrees.  He leaves the Service, and finds work in a small public library.  There he meets Lis Gold, a pretty young woman who happens to be a Communist, and they become lovers.  He drinks heavily, behaves erratically, and then, without warning, beats up his grocer, and serves some months in prison.  When he gets out he keeps drinking, and then is approached, indirectly, by East German intelligence, who want him to defect.  Eventually, he does.

Brought to East Germany, Leamas is interrogated by Mundt's deputy and rifle, Fiedler, whose Jewish parents had returned to East Germany after 1945 because they were Communists.  He is Mundt's rival in part because Mundt is an ex-Nazi who has not changed his views about Jews.  Fiedler wanted to talk to Leamas because he suspected Mundt of having become a British agent after being arrested for the murders he had committed in London.  Leamas, it becomes clear, has prepared various stories that will convince Fiedler that he is right. Leamas thinks he is arranging for Mundt's removal, and probablyi his execution, as a British spy.  He establishes a kind of personal bond with Fiedler, who is portrayed as a man of good will and genuine feeling.

Eventually Mundt is indeed arrested and put on trial, with Fiedler in the role of prosecutor.  Leamas continues to insist--as he believes--that Mundt was never a British agent, but the evidence has mounted that he was.  Then, in the midst of the trial, who should appear, to Leamas' astonishment, to Lis Gold, who has been brought to East Germany as part of a Communist exchange program.  On the stand, she is forced to reveal that she has been visited by George Smiley and another British official since Leamas's department and that she suddenly received a paid-for lease for her flat.  Leamas's cover is exploded, Mundt is saved, and Fiedler is obviously headed for execution.  Then, Leamas realizes that his mission, all along, has been the reverse of what he thought: he has been sent to save Mundt from Fiedler, not to get revenge on Mundt. Mundt is, indeed, a British spy.

And for this reason, Mundt puts Leamas and Liz in a car to drive to East Berlin, where they will cross over the wall.  On the way, in a brilliant scene, Leamas tries desperately to convince Liz, and himself, that all this really is necessary because of Mundt's value to British intelligence.  But she is not convinced, and in his heart, Leamas isn't either.  She also cannot understand why Mundt would let her return to Britain.  Her intuition is apt.  As they climb up the wall, she is shot by one of the sentries.  Leamas pauses literally at the top of the wall, with Smiley screaming at him to jump from the other side. Instead, he climbs back down next to Liz, and is shot and killed himself.

The novel shows how two people are caught in the great Cold War struggle and destroyed.  But there is another level to it, and nearly all LeCarré's spy writing, which did not occur to me until much later.  Never in LeCarré's books do the intrigues of the spies, on both sides, mean anything to anyone but each other.  Nearly all the information they seek and the operations they run relate to their own loyalties and disloyalties.  They live and die playing a deadly game of interest to no one but themselves.

A Legacy of Spies (hereafter Legacy, picks up the story of Spy  at some unspecified moment in the relatively recent past.  Its exact date is never given away, but based on the ages of some of the characters I would put it early in the 21st century, that is, at least 10 years ago.  Its protagonist is another old friend, Peter Guillam, who had a brief role in Spy and a much larger one in Tinker, Tailor, as a protege of Smiley's.  Guillam, it suddenly occurred to me for the first time, is pretty clearly LeCarré himself.  They are about the same age and share (from what I have been told) a great interest in the opposite sex.  As the book opens Guillam is living in retirement in France, but the Service contacts him to help deal with a lawsuit.  The suit has been filed by two new characters, the illegitimate son and daughter, respectively, of Alec Leamas and Liz Gold--two characters we never learned about in Spy. They want damages for their parents' deaths, and in the entirely new climate of post Cold War Britain, they may get them.  Guillam realizes that the government has settled on him as a logical candidate to take the rap. 

To write Legacy, LeCarré uses the same technique that he used to write Spy a year or two after Call for the Dead: creating new characters and plot lines out of gaps left in an earlier work.  We learn a whole new story of how Mundt was captured and recruited as a British agent.  We learn much  more about Leamas's network of agents in East Berlin.  We learn a lot more about Liz Gold, whom Guillam, it turns out, had briefly courted as well.  And that involves some fascinating scenes. No one is more aware than LeCarré of the huge differences between the world of the 1960s and our own--yet when he dexcribes Liz's brief romance with Guillam, she becomes very much a 21st-century young woman, not the reserved, proper girl we met in Spy.  Leamas, seen in flashbacks, is far more emotional and loquacious than the stolid cold warrior  of Spy.  Of course, younger readers would probably have trouble accepting their old portraits--but they were true to life all the same.

Legacy ends suddenly and equivocally, without telling us what happened to the lawsuit.  LeCarré is now 86 and he indicated in a New York Times interview that this book might be his last, but a sequel to this one could easily be in the cards.  It would allow him to fill out another new plot line he introduced: that Control and Smiley decided to recruit Mundt to in the hope that he would rise high enough in the esteem of Soviet intelligence to be able to tell them the identity of the mole they suspect is hiding in their own service.  There was never a hint of such a mole in Spy, but that has not stopped LeCarré from adding this new dimension. We shall see if that part of the story also gets fleshed out.

Meanwhile, the books LeCarré has written since the end of the Cold War do drive home the enormous differences between its world and our own. In those days the state reigned supreme in East and West, exerting extraordinary claims on soldiers, spies and citizens alike in the pursuit of something bigger.  The books were, among other things, a commentary on the excesses of civic virtue. By contrast, civic virtue is nowhere to be found in books like The Constant Gardener, A Most Wanted Man, Our Kind of Traitor, and A Delicate Truth.  Now Russian oligarchs, greedy corporations and and privatized intelligence groups seem to rule the world, and they grind honest individuals to powder just as the Cold War did Leamas and Liz.  In just a few decades we have gone from a world ruled by ideology to one ruled by the self-interest of the powerful.  LeCarré has documented that very well, and that is probably his greatest achievement.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

A radio appearance

Ten days or so ago I participated in a radio panel discussion in Austin, Texas, talking about many of the issues I talk about here.  You can listen to it here--it is currently the top of the list--dated October 6, 2017. Enjoy!
Don't miss the new post, below.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Burns's Vietnam

I must admit that when Ken Burns's and Lynn Novick's Vietnam series started, I was not eager to watch it.  Two or three years ago--I am not sure which--I had heard about the series by accident, and I had called Burns's office in hopes of taking part in it.  I was summarily informed that the series was already in post production, and that was that.  I was frustrated by the first two episodes, which covered things I had researched and written about myself, with some significant gaps.  But after the major American involvement began in 1965, I changed my mind.  To begin with, Burns had used almost no historians at all on camera and very few, apparently, in preparing the script.  I had no reason to take my own exclusion personally.  But more importantly, Burns had decided to present the war almost entirely from the perspective of combatants and their families on all sides--American, North Vietnamese, and South Vietnamese.  That he had done superbly, and I was very grateful for it.  I think it is probably the best film that he has produced.

The single best thing about the series, for me, was its portrayal of combat.  Burns combined interviews with participants in battle--again, on all sides--with extraordinary footage.  At times I wondered, and I still don't know, if the footage really was footage of the exact day and place the veterans were talking about, but it certainly looked as if it might have been.  And in his battlefield episodes Burns demolished one of the enduring myths of the war:  that the United States never lost a battle  Several of the battles that veterans described in excruciating detail fit the classic pattern of Vietnam combat.  An American unit--generally anything from a company to a battalion--patrolling in the jungle or the highlands, walked into a VC or North Vietnamese ambush.  The Communist forces tried not to open fire until the Americans were just a few yards away.  This tactic, to "grab them by the belts," meant that the US forces would not be able to call in their devastating artillery or air support during the battle for fear of hitting their own men.  For hours, North Vietnamese and US forces would exchange rifle and machine gun fire and grenades, inflicting heavy casualties.  Many American companies suffered losses large enough to put them out of action as effective fighting forces in these firefights.  The North Vietnamese, of course, wanted to continue these encounters until US casualties had become so high that the American people would insist on de-escalating, and, eventually, quitting the war.  In the end, the turning point came at Hamburger Hill, in May 1969--one of so many battles that fit that pattern, and which forced the US to try to avoid many more of them.  That battle, coincidentally, took place nearly at the very moment when American forces in South Vietnam had reached their highest point.

Burns not only decided not to use historians, but he also decided not to use anyone, really, who had become famous during the Vietnam era.  The highest-level civilians he interviews are Leslie Gelb, one of the authors of the Pentagon papers, and John Negroponte, who was then a junior diplomat at the Paris peace talks.  He did not interview Henry Kissinger, or Daniel Ellsberg, or John McCain (who is seen in an interview in a hospital bed shortly after his capture.)  Nor did he interview James Webb or Ron Kovic, two activist veterans with opposing views of the war and its lessons.  But I thought the ordinary veterans he selected gave a fine portrait of my own Boom generation as it was then.  Many joined out of idealism, and we forget how many of us (like me) fully supported the rationale behind the war when it began in earnest in 1965.  The treatment of changes on campus during those years was also excellent.

Burns did what he can do, very well.  I have done something very different throughout my career--reading, researching and studying to understand the decisions US leaders took to intervene, fight, and withdraw, and why they were not successful.  I would like to make a few points that Burns did not address,  or where he contributed to longstanding misconceptions.

The first concerns the role of the Eisenhower Administration, on the one hand, and the Kennedy Administration, on the other, in involving, or not involving, the United States in wr in Southeast Asia.  Eisenhower in 1954 refused the entreaties of his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, to intervene actively on the side of the French.  But in subsequent years, I found researching American Tragedy, his administration laid down policies calling for American intervention to stop Communist aggression in Laos, Cambodia, or South Vietnam--using nuclear weapons as necessary, and accepting the risk of all-out war with China. And indeed, in late 1960, a civil war in Laos, which the American-backed forces were losing, brought the Eisenhower Administration to the brink of carrying out those policies before Ike left office and dumped the situation in JFK's lap.  Burns said almost nothing about any of this.

That, in turn, leads to the aspect of JFK's policies that I and other historians have highlighted, but which Burns did not really explore.  From the moment that Kennedy took office through early November 1961, he was besieged with a series of proposals for full-scale American intervention, including large ground forces, in Laos, in South Vietnam, or in both countries.  Virtually all his senior advisers--Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, Bundy's deputy Walt Rostow, and most of the Joint Chiefs--pushed for intervention. Kennedy repeatedly rejected it.  In the last meeting in which he did so he laid out a series of excellent reasons why war in South Vietnam would be a dreadful mistake: that the war would be hard to explain to the American people, that the Saigon government had not managed to handle the insurgency, and that we would not be supported by major allies.  He also abandoned the civil war in Laos in favor of a negotiated settlement, which he eventually achieved.  He did all this, in part, because he had a wide-ranging diplomatic agenda aimed at easing tensions in the Cold War, which war in Southeast Asia would not help.  His successor had no such agenda.

I also found fault with Burns's treatment of Lyndon Johnson in 1964-5.  He made extensive use of Johnson's phone conversations, which often show the President agonizing over what to do in Southeast Asia.  I too was fooled, initially, when I heard some of those.  But gradually I realized that while Johnson loved to agonize, he had never seriously considered any alternative to fighting a war to try to save South Vietnam from the Communists.  His plan to do so was clear as early as March 1964, although he was determined to wait until after the election.  More seriously, Burns, like so many historians, gave the misleading impression that Johnson first decided on sustained bombing of North Vietnam in early March 1965, and then was gradually pushed into a ground commitment.  In fact, Johnson in December 1964 approved a planning paper that linked the anticipated bombing of the North to "appropriate deployments to handle any contingency."  In the late 1990s I got the appendices to that document declassified, and they showed a specific plan to deploy hundreds of aircraft and hundreds of thousands of troops to Southeast Asia, beginning with the Marines who landed in Da Nang the week the bombing of the North began.  Subsequent events followed that timetable quite closely, although plans to send forces ot Thailand were dropped, and those troops wound up in South Vietnam instead.  There was only one decision to fight a huge war in Southeast Asia, and it was taken in December 1964.

Burns also failed ever to identify the real issue in the peace talks that began in 1968: the issue of who would rule South Vietnam, and what would happen to it in the long run.  The Geneva Agreements of 1954 that ended the French war had recognized the "unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity" of Vietnam, and for the next 18 years the US had struggled to establish, and define, South Vietnam as a separate and independent nation.  Beginning in 1965, North Vietnam had demanded not immediate reunification, but the establishment of a coalition government in the South and the withdrawal of American troops, leaving that new government to negotiate eventual reunification.  Not until the fall of 1972 did the Nixon Administration abandon its position.  It did not agree to a coalition government, but the agreement it signed put the Viet Cong on a footing of equality with the South Vietnamese government and directed the two parties to work out new political arrangements.  It also, of course--as Burns did show--allowed North Vietnamese troops to remain in South Vietnam.  To his credit, Burns gave almost no support to the idea that the South might have remained independent if the US had simply given it more aid.

Over the course of the 18-hour broadcast, viewers got to know Burns's select group of US veterans (and similar groups of North and South Vietnamese) very well.  The last hour or so on the aftermath, featured the controversy over the Vietnam Memorial--and their own visits to it.  Many of them cried as they described them, and I found myself crying as well.  I return again to the theme I struck at the end of American Tragedy.  The war marked the end of an heroic era in American history, and set off a process of political disintegration that is still continuing.  We live with it to this day.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The New Nature of Politics

The agenda of the Trump Administration and the Republican Congress is rather confusing but in recent weeks a light has dawned, for me at least, revealing to me what is really going on in Washington.  I owe my new insights (if such they are) largely to Jane Mayer and her book Dark Money, which I reviewed here some weeks ago.   That book, I am discovering, has not had nearly the impact that it should have.  I just gave a talk on the current crisis to about 30 students and faculty at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, and a show of hands revealed that not one audience member had read it.  Neither had a reporter for a major newspaper whom I called to discuss a story about one piece of the network that Dark Money described.  But I have kept the picture it drew of the influence of the Koch brothers and their allies in the Bradley, Scaife, Olin and other foundations in mind, and Jane Mayer herself pointed out an important story in the Guardian about what they have been up to lately.  Here are my conclusions.

This past week, the Senate and House Republicans finally had to abandon their last attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare.  The alternative put forward by Senator Lindsay Graham and three others was the most radical yet, eliminating mandates, subsides, and mandatory protection for those with pre-existing conditions, capping medicaid, and putting a major hurt on blue states while helping red ones.  The mainstream media was initially amazed by the emergence of this new bill, since the earlier iterations had proven so unpopular with the medical establishment and the public.  It explained this as an appeal to the "Republican base." So it is, I think--but only if one gives up the idea that the Republican base is composed of voters.  It isn't--it's composed of billionaire contributors, led by the Kochs, who have discovered ways to put their agenda through without reference to the voters.  They control today's Republican Party as completely as the steel industries and railroads controlled our politics in the late 19th century, because they can fund any campaign that they want.

Al Franken, I believe, has commented that only half the Republicans in Congress hold views similar to Michelle Bachmann's, but the other half are terrified to losing their next primary to another Michelle Bachmann.  In recent elections Tea Party candidates have repeatedly toppled establishment Republicans, including long-time officeholders like Richard Lugar of Indiana.  The Kochs periodically hold donor retreats to meet with Republican officeholders, and last June, the Guardian reported, their representative warned Republicans that campaign contributions would dry up unless they passed Obamacare repeal and tax reform this year. That, presumably, is why the latest and worst health care bill arose like a Phoenix during September.  The real question, about which I have seen nothing, is where and by whom the bill was drafted.  I would bet a good deal of money that intellectuals within the right-wing donor network did it first and found the sponsors later.  Graham is smart enough to know the bill would be very unpopular, and Charles Grassley of Iowa has been quoted admitting that it is a bad bill.  Yet the Republicans felt they had no choice but to cave in to their financial, as oppposed to their electoral, base.  So many of them live in one-party states or gerrymandered districts that they have no reason to think about what Democratic voters think, but remain vulnerable to the votes of tea party activists (themselves part of the Koch network) in primaries.

The tax reform proposal unveiled this week is probably part of the same story.  It will eliminated the inheritance tax, which is significant only for multi-millionaires like the Kochs.  It will protect the low rates of many in the financial community thanks to "pass throughs."  And by eliminating state and local tax deductions, it will increase taxes on residents of blue states that have significant income taxes.  The network that is producing these plans is obviously pursuing a conscious strategy of regional war.  And it is powerful enough to have induced Republican "deficit hawks" to swallow a bill that will add an estimated $200 billion a year to the federal deficit.

This week we are learning that the new division in the Republican party isn't between radicals and moderates, it's between two rival groups of mega-donors.  Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, the patrons of Breitbart News and Steve Bannon, were the chief contributors to Judge Ray Moore, who just won the Republican nomination (and therefore, surely, the election) for Jeff Session's Senate seat in Alabama over the Trump-backed establishment candidate.  Today's New York Times indicates that the Mercer network plans to run many Republican primary candidates next year.  The Koch brothers' model of using their billions to field candidates, subsidize media outlets and maintain a retinue of friendly intellectuals is being adapted by other millionaires.  One or two liberal billionaires have even tried it in recent years, but without much success.  In Republican states--and most states are now Republican--such networks can effectively take any meaningful choice away from the mass of the voters.

Donald Trump is not a significant player in the policy battles now taking place, except insofar as he can be relied upon to deny the obvious--claiming, for instance, that his tax plan does not help the rich--and sign conservative legislation.  He and Mike Pence have handed environmental regulation and educational policies over to allies and members of the ultraconservative donor network.  They have also formed an alliance on social issues with the religious right.  Their economic proposals, I believe, are coming from outside the Administration.  If the anti-Trump media really want to make a contribution to our national life they should uncover where the drafts of the health care and tax bills are coming from, and how they will benefit certain specific people.  The Democrats need to speak up on behalf of the whole people.  For the time being, robust democracy is a thing of the past, a victim of the tax policies and conservative activism of the last 40 years.  To learn more, go to your public library or bookstore and get your hands on Dark Money.